Before I speak to the Homiletic Directory, recently published by the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, let me tell you about my liturgical history. Born in 1955, my first memories of Sunday Mass were what we call today the “Extraordinary Form.” I made my First Holy Communion according to the 1962 Missal. The year I became an altar server (1964) changes were already being made in the Mass from the Second Vatican Council. While the basic structure of the Mass remained the same, the vernacular was inserted in various parts.
By the time I completed my eighth grade elementary education, our graduation Mass was said according to what is now the “Ordinary Form,” and accompanied by popular guitar music such as “Joy is Like the Rain,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Kumbaya,” and so on. In Catholic high school I experienced Mass being offered on a teacher’s desk.
In college I served on the liturgy committee for our Newman Center community and was responsible for coming up with “thematic Masses” using the Mass structure and readings like an Erector Set that could be disassembled and altered to fit the theme. And if the Sacred Scripture readings did not fit the theme, others could be substituted or replaced by choice secular readings and poems. Thank God those days are over!
Liturgical confusion, I believe, resulted from the surrounding secular and ecclesial confusion of the times. Radical and rapid changes were taking place in society and in the Church. Sunday Mass became the stage on which preachers could address both. We went from a time when the sermon always began and ended with the Sign of the Cross, with each sermon beginning with the words “My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,” and followed by short moral or doctrinal instruction or an occasional letter from the local bishop, to a time when sermons became diatribes on war and peace, or racism and riots in the streets. The new way of preaching was often described as having the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. In any case, liturgical reform was in search of a way to make the Gospel of Jesus Christ relevant to what was happening in modern culture. Unfortunately the homily became for some preachers an occasion for political rhetoric or social commentary rather than for preaching the Gospel.
The Homiletic Directory rightly points out the need for a deepening of the integral bond between the Sacred Scriptures, worship, and the demands of living the Gospel in daily life. This homiletic principle is not just a theological or theoretical abstraction, but places the responsibility of authentic preaching directly toward the prayer life of the preacher. “What is essential,” says the Homiletic Directory, “is that the preacher makes the Word of God central to his own spiritual life, that he knows his people well, that he be reflective of the events of the times, that he continually seeks to develop the skills that help him preach effectively and above all, that in his spiritual poverty, he invites in faith the Holy Spirit as the principal agent that makes the hearts of the faithful amenable to the divine mysteries” (3). This, for me, is the greatest challenge of preparing a homily. I need to keep one eye on the Word of God, especially as it unfolds throughout the liturgical year, and the other eye on the condition of the world and the lives of my people, and through my prayer allow the Holy Spirit to speak to my heart a word that God wants them to hear.
Perhaps the most important section of part I in the Homiletic Directory for me is the section on preparation of the homily (26 ff.). It calls for the preacher to prayerfully contemplate the Word of God through the age-old practice of lectio divina. This fourfold process of lectio divina is explained well in the Homiletic Directory (27-36) and will prove helpful for any preacher not familiar with this dialectic engagement with the Sacred Scriptures. Lectio divina keeps the Word of God in the forefront of the preacher’s mind not only when he is sitting down to write his homily, but when he is in prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament, when he is listening to the news, and when he is on his pastoral visits with his people.
Secondly, I believe that lectio divina serves another purpose, to help the people who listen to the homily prayerfully approach the Word of God themselves. If the one who is listening does not bring the Word of God into his or her own life and prayer, the Word of God falls on “rocky ground” and does nothing.
Part II of the Homiletic Directory is an excellent guide to the central themes of the Sacred Scriptures within the rhythm of the liturgical year, and is a practical help for preachers to insure that the fundamental mysteries of Christian faith are addressed. This section begins with the Paschal Triduum, the center of the liturgical year. I suggest that not only is the Paschal Triduum the center of the liturgical year, but it is also currently the daily experience of the Church and the people of God. It is always easier to preach during the joyful, glorious, and luminous times of the world, but what every preacher knows who mounts the pulpit these days is that we are headed right into the sorrowful mysteries, and will require great courage and strength to speak the Word of God in truth and love.
Fr. William P. Felix is a priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis.